Where to Ride MTB

Mediocre to Mega: Alpine Test

Deputy editor Aoife is taking on the Megavalanche, a mass start MTB race in Alpe D'Huez. Follow her journey as she gets herself ready for the challenge of a lifetime.

The Juliana Bicycles Roubion in action in the alps. Image copyright Sven Martin

I’ve been having mixed success in my attempts to get ready for the Megavalanche, the crazy mountain bike race I’m attempting for the first time in July.

Since I’d not had a huge amount of experience, it’s safe to say I was a little daunted at the prospect of a 2,000m descent starting at the top of a glacier covered mountain. Although I’d tried to get a bit of experience in the form of trips to the Lake District and Scotland, there’s no substitute for the real thing.

Therefore, I was pretty happy to be invited along on the Juliana Bicycles press trip to test ride the new Roubion, not just because it looked like a kick-ass bike, but also because we would be testing it in the Maritime Alps in France. Yes, some actual mountains!

The plan was to ride in the area around Roubion, the town the bike is named for, on trails that form part of the Mavic Trans-Provence MTB race. The area is just a couple of hours from Nice airport, but the terrain couldn’t be more different to the flat, sun-drenched Cotê d’Azur.

This region of the Alps seems wilder and more thrillingly beautiful than other parts of the mountain range I’ve been to. The narrow roads hug the walls of steep sided gorges, with blue rivers cutting their way through the gnarled and folded rock. Where the mountains open up, the wide valley bottoms are gravel and boulder strewn, a testament to the force of the water that can flow though these channels after the snow melts or in the violence of a mountain storm.

High mountains, green forests, grey river valleys and blue skies. Image copyright Gary Perkin

I was riding with a group of female bike journalists who had traveled from literally around the world. America, Canada, France, Spain and of course the UK. I was pretty stoked to have been picked to join the trip, but also a little nervous. I needn’t have been – everyone was exceptionally friendly, fun and supportive.

Also joining us were a host of amazing riders, including Anka Martin (Enduro World Series rider), Julia Hobson (Trans-Provence guide), Katie Zaffke (Juliana Bicycles brand manager) and Kathy Pruitt (MTB coach and guide). These women all ride for Juliana Bicycles, and I think it’s safe to say they embody the spirit of adventure that the brand strives to promote.

Riding in the Alps is a very different kettle of fish to the UK. It’s just so much bigger, steeper, longer, harder, more technical. Everything is amplified, but this also means it’s beautiful, dramatic, varied and challenging.

We started off up near a mountain pass, with snow patches here and there and actual live marmottes hopping about. I’d never seen a marmotte in real life before, and was beginning to think they were mythical. They’re bigger than I thought.

A great place to expand my skills (and put the Roubion through its paces). Image copyright Sven Martin

Open, rocky paths turned to twisting wooded singletrack, which gradually got steeper as the day wore on. Every so often we’d turn a corner to see incredible views across the valley, a reminder of how high we were – and how far the drop to the bottom was. One final trail before lunch consisted entirely of steep switchback turns.

If you’ve been following my antics in the lead up to the Mega, you’ll know I’m not very good at these, but I got some great tips from Anka, Julia and Sven. Basically, I stayed on the bike, let the front brake off, kept the back brake on, and focused on sticking my inside leg out as I edged around the corner. It wasn’t fast, it wasn’t elegant and it wasn’t perhaps the most stylish of techniques, but by the end of the trip I could feel it working, and I got a little bit more confident.

We were also lucky to be joined by renowned MTB photographers Sven Martin and Gary Perkin. This meant we got the kind of holiday snaps most people can only dream about from their bike holidays. It also meant you’d turn a corner and there’d be a photographer hanging out of a bush in front of you suddenly, or the occasional call of ‘That was good!’ from a tree above your head. Clearly the pros are more focused and less easily startled than me – I did have a few near-miss moments.

One stand-out section we rode, different to anything I’d ever been on before, was the ‘Grey Earth’. An expanse of dark, loose shale that had been eroded over the years into miniature ridges and valleys. Strangely grippy, it was incredibly fun to ride, and rolling up and down the side of gulleys like they were little half-pipes was addictive.

Descending the valleys of the Grey Earth. Image copyright Sven Martin

On day two it was time to visit Roubion itself, and if you haven’t been it’s one to add to the bucket list. Literally clinging to a cliff side, this ancient town has barely two buildings on the same level. A beautiful church, murals painted on doorways, and a fake goat on a rocky promontory are a few of the highlights.

It was here that we experienced the dramatic thunderstorms and the damage they can wreak first hand. An original and exciting plan to ride to the valley bottom and hike the bikes through the river was abandoned as the water level was too high, so instead we’d go in two groups to the next starting point and ride from there.

I was in the first group, and we reached the town and set off just as the thunder started. The sky was full of orange and grey clouds, and the rumbles overhead loud and close. The rain was so heavy it knocked the blossom from the trees, and we were soaked in seconds. It was hilarious! We plunged down slippery and sometimes cobbled paths, past houses, laughing all the way to the valley bottom. Well, I was laughing – the others probably thought I was completely mad.

The town of Roubion looking calm before the storm, and the view from the town of Roubion when the clouds came in. Image copyright Sven Martin

We headed, naturally enough, to the local bar to await the second group. They didn’t show up. It turned out that the rains had been so heavy a landslide had washed over the road, blocking it, not long before they were to pass. A slightly scary near miss, and a reminder that the mountain environment is one you need to be respectful of. It might be sunshine and dry trails one minute, but it’s got a wild edge that you need to be aware of when you ride.

Evenings were spent in a ridiculously lovely mountain hotel, with rustic food, excellent wine and a game of ‘enduro charades’ that will be hard to forget. I’d explain the rules, but I can’t quite remember – they seemed to make sense at the time.

On the final day we headed to the Roubion bike park. Boy did we feel special as they’d opened it up just for us. It was the perfect place to put the Juliana Roubion through its paces in a more man-made environment and the general consensus was that this was one rather awesome bike. Perfect for ‘shralping’ on – the word of the week.

I came away from the trip a more confident rider, not least because Julia and Anka, who have both ridden the Megavalanche, said that based on how I’d been riding, I should be fine. Huge relief! They also gave me some useful insider tips.

This part of the Alps may not be one of the most well known regions to visit for bike holidays, but it has a wealth of amazing and varied terrain to ride. I don’t know about anyone else, but I am sure as hell planning to visit again!

Want to find out how this crazy adventure began? Check out Taking on the Megavalanche, Failure to Launch and Mountain Epiphany, all part of the Mediocre to Mega adventure.

Like the bike? The new Juliana Roubion is now available. Find out our First Impressions of the Juliana Roubion here.

What’s the collective noun for a group of Roubions? I reckon it should be an ‘adventure’ of Roubions. Image copyright Gary Perkin

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